COURTESY NATIONAL MARINE FISHERIES
SERVICE / FEBRUARY 2005
This photo shows reef damage from the grounding of the cargo ship Cape Flattery.
Captain blamed in ship's grounding on reef
The freighter got stuck in coral off Barbers Point after proceeding without a required harbor pilot
Negligence by the captain caused a cargo ship loaded with cement to go aground outside Barbers Point Harbor last year, a Coast Guard investigation has concluded.
The 555-foot bulk cargo ship Cape Flattery came hard aground on a coral reef about 800 yards from the harbor entrance at about 6:48 a.m. on Feb. 2, 2005.
The ship stayed aground for nine days until emergency workers removed enough of its 27,000-ton load to refloat it. The Coast Guard report estimated damage to the ship at $21 million.
Marine scientists said shortly after the incident that damage to the reef -- sections of which were hundreds of years old -- could be the most severe from a ship grounding in Hawaii's history.
A report putting a cost on reef restoration efforts is expected later this year.
No one was injured in the grounding, and no fuel was spilled, the Coast Guard reported. But significant quantities of granular cement were spilled into the ocean as a crane and barge offloaded it to get the ship off the reef.
The Coast Guard investigation of the incident, released in Washington last month and obtained by the Star-Bulletin through the federal Freedom of Information Act, listed the captain's missteps as including:
» Not waiting for a Honolulu-based harbor pilot to come aboard the ship and guide it into port, as required by port rules. The Cape Flattery arrived at least nine minutes early at the appointed meeting place about a mile from the harbor, but did not stop and wait for its assigned harbor pilot, who was en route on a tugboat.
» Not responding to the pilot's radioed commands to alter the ship's course. The pilot on the approaching tugboat saw that the Cape Flattery was in danger of grounding by observing its direction and speed, he told investigators.
» Not using radar, not paying heed to channel lights and markers, and not following the charted course for harbor entrance that had been correctly plotted by another ship's officer.
The investigation also faulted the ship for not having a functioning echo depth-sounder and not having enough ship's officers on the bridge during its approach to the harbor.
Tom Heberle, president of the Hawaii Pilots Association, called the rule of having a locally licensed pilot on board an incoming ship "one of the most basic things." He equated a ship captain's failure to have a harbor pilot aboard his vessel to "driving down the street and the street ends and there are signs that say 'dead end' but you just keep going."
Heberle said Friday that he is not aware of any other instances where a ship failed to wait for its appointed harbor pilot to board and guide it into the harbor.
The captain told Coast Guard interviewers that he had expected Aloha Tower to inform him if he needed to wait for the harbor pilot. He also was angry that the Coast Guard or Aloha Tower had not warned him that he was in dangerous waters, the report said.
The Cape Flattery captain, a Chinese national who was directing a 22-person, all-Chinese crew, held a Hong Kong China Marine Department license as master of vessels greater than 3,000 gross tons and had 12 years' experience as a licensed mariner, the Coast Guard report said.
It was the captain's first trip to Hawaii on his first contract with the Cape Flattery, which he had served on for 30 days prior to the grounding.
In a statement released from its offices in Hong Kong, the Cape Flattery's owner, Pacific Basin Shipping Ltd., said:
"We are in complete agreement with the recommendations of the Coast Guard in their report," which the company called "a most thorough investigation in which we participated fully."
"We regret the accident caused by an error on the part of the Master (captain) and can confirm that the Master is no longer employed by the company," the statement continued. "The lessons learnt from this unfortunate incident were immediately promulgated throughout our fleet, and have been incorporated into our officer training program, with specific focus on the correct procedures to follow when entering any port."
Pacific Basin wrote that the company will "continue to work with the relevant environmental organizations to best resolve the matters of environmental concern associated with the incident."
The company praised Hawaii Coast Guard and emergency workers, "who by their professional actions helped avert a worse incident."
The Cape Flattery captain's name and all other names of people involved in the incident are blacked out in the report obtained by the Star-Bulletin. Coast Guard Lt. Scott Masterson said withholding names is required by privacy laws because the investigation is not a criminal matter.
Masterson said he expects that the captain was disciplined in some way because of the incident, but he does not know any details. Because the Cape Flattery is foreign-flagged, the Coast Guard has no jurisdiction over its crew, he said.
Drug and alcohol use by the crew or harbor pilot were tested for and ruled out as factors in the accident, Masterson said.
The Coast Guard report does not attempt to assess damage to the coral reef that was crushed by the grounding.
John Naughton, Pacific islands environmental coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service, said emergency reattachment of some live coral colonies seem to be holding up and that wildlife agencies hope the ship's owner will agree to pay for environmental restoration.
Shortly after the Cape Flattery grounding, Ko Olina boat harbor made a permanent slip available for a harbor pilot boat, Heberle said. The pilot boats are clearly marked as such and have an on-board radio that can communicate with state harbor dispatchers at Aloha Tower and with incoming boats at a distance, he said.
The Coast Guard report noted that on the day of the Cape Flattery grounding, the harbor pilot could not radio Aloha Tower about the situation because his hand-held radio he had to use on the tugboat did not have enough power.
The pilot was able to radio the Cape Flattery captain and urge him to change course to avoid a grounding. The captain responded that he would be careful, but did not alter his course or speed, as advised by the pilot.
A tugboat was substituting for a fully equipped pilot boat because no slips were available at the time for a pilot boat at Ko Olina, Heberle said.
Since the Cape Flattery incident, the state Department of Transportation has re-emphasized the requirement for a harbor pilot on every incoming ship, and ships have been in compliance, said department spokesman Scott Ishikawa. The state does not plan to establish a state control tower at Barbers Point, he said.
About 15 ships per month come in and out at Barbers Point Harbor, Heberle said.
New law helps state remove grounded vessels
A new state law signed by Gov. Linda Lingle last month authorizes the Department of Land and Natural Resources to remove a vessel grounded on living coral reef as quickly as possible.
In situations where the vessel is in imminent danger of breaking up but its owner or operator cannot remove it, Act 134 allows state officials to help move the vessel to a safer location without liability, a department release says.
"The department has learned by sorry example that just one tidal cycle can drive a boat hard aground and compound both the cost and damages to the environment," DLNR Director Peter Young said in the release. "Time is of the essence, and this law allows the state to expedite action to lessen those impacts."
There were five vessel groundings in state waters in the last four months of 2005. Although the responsibility and cost of vessel removal are the owner's, the DLNR was faced with the task of making arrangements for removal of the wrecked vessels from the coastline in at least three of the 2005 incidents, the department said.
For example, when the 54-foot fishing boat Two Star went aground on rocks outside Kewalo Basin in October, its owner left it there for three days. When the boat started to break up, with pieces of it creating a hazard for surfers, the DLNR hired a contractor to remove it at a cost of nearly $100,000. The department paid more than $25,000 to move a grounded sailboat from a Waikiki Beach later that same month.
When the state spends money to move boats, it is difficult to recover those costs from a boat owner who claims he has no money, said Roy Yanagihara, Oahu district manager for the DLNR's Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation.
The new law makes clear that all costs and expenses of the removal, and damage to state or private property, are the sole responsibility of the vessel owner or operator. It also allows the state to take legal action to collect any costs incurred by the DLNR for removal of a vessel when an owner refuses to pay.
The law provides immunity from liability for state officials and their agents, or "good Samaritan" fellow boaters who render aid to a grounded vessel.
Vessel groundings on more benign areas, such as mud flats, sandbars or beaches, will be given more time for removal.